Take the statues down

Baltimore's memorials should reflect our values, not the delusion that the Confederacy was a noble cause.

If a prominent Baltimore family offered today to provide the city with a statue commemorating a man whose best known achievement in life had been to author a 19th Century U.S. Supreme Court decision holding that African-Americans, whether free or slave, had no rights under the Constitution, we expect the public would broadly oppose the idea. Likewise, if a wealthy resident included a bequest in his will for the commission and donation to Baltimore of a statue depicting the two generals who did the most to perpetuate the Confederacy, we expect the city would decline to accept it. Beloved as Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee may be in some quarters, the cause for which they fought offends our present values.

Conversely, though, we expect the city might accept statues commemorating the men who fought for the Confederacy and the women who nursed them and otherwise aided the war effort, provided they were properly contextualized and balanced by an equivalent monument to those who fought on the Union side. Baltimore was divided during the Civil War, and many of its residents died on both sides. Reflecting that tragic history in a way that makes clear on which side our sensibilities now lie is entirely appropriate.

That, essentially, is what the recommendation of a commission tasked by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to review Baltimore's Confederacy-related memorials amounts to: an evaluation of whether these statues on public land reflect who we are as a city. The statues of Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney in Mt. Vernon Place and of Lee and Jackson in Wyman Park, which the commission recommended removing, do not. The Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument on Mount Royal Avenue and the Confederate Women's Monument on West University Parkway can with the addition of some well chosen signage.

Even so, the decision Mayor Rawlings-Blake has to make about whether to accept the commission's proposal is difficult, not because of what they say about the people and events they depict but because of what they say about the attitudes of Baltimoreans in the decades after the Civil War ended. Removing the Taney and Jackson/Lee statues does not erase the fact that the city's loyalties during the war were divided, but it does risk erasing the fact that publicly sanctioned sympathy for the Confederacy and all it stood for continued for decades after the war's end.

The Taney statue is a direct copy of the one that sits on the grounds of the State House, but it lacks the symbolic counterpoint of the much more prominent statue of Supreme Court Justice and Civil Rights hero Thurgood Marshall on the opposite side of the capitol. The original Taney statue was commissioned by the state of Maryland and unveiled in 1872, a year before Congress would approve placing his bust among those of the nation's previous Supreme Court chief justices. (The Dred Scott case was infamous enough at the time that initially, Congress had planned to leave his space blank in the procession of chief justices.) Baltimore's Taney statue was unveiled in 1887 and was the gift of William T. Walters, the businessman and art collector. The Sun carried a lengthy article about the unveiling, opining at great length about its beauty and Taney's accomplishments, though omitting any mention of Dred Scott. Among the dignitaries on the scene were Sun president and publisher George W. Abell and Mayor Ferdinand Latrobe, who later extolled the statue to the City Council as depicting "one of the great men of the country."

The Lee/Jackson statue has adherents purely on artistic grounds, but its history is worth recounting as well. It is the result of a bequest from J. Henry Ferguson, who wrote in his will, "General Lee and General Jackson were my boyhood heroes, and maturer judgment has only strengthened my admiration for them. They were great generals and Christian soldiers. They waged war like gentlemen, and I feel their example should be held up to the youth of Maryland." Mayor Thomas J. D'Alesandro and Gov. Preston Lane attended the dedication, along with descendants of both generals and a company of VMI cadets.

Such veneration decades after the war reflects a persistent desire among many who sympathize with the Confederacy to divorce the war from its historical context. And it extended not just to the 1948 dedication of the statue but right up until the present day. Until this year, Maryland Sons of Confederate Veterans had marched on the statue in Confederate uniforms under the Confederate flag on the third weekend in January, which is around the time of both generals' birthdays but is also the weekend of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. Several years of protests, led initially by local Quakers, prompted the Sons and the United Daughters of the Confederacy to cancel this year's event, but they evidently haven't prompted a change in attitudes. The president of the Daughters told The Sun's Dan Rodricks this weekend that "it's a damn shame that we are not allowed to honor our heritage" and actually analogized it to what it would be like if people were "not allowed to commemorate Martin Luther King Day or not go to his statue in the District of Columbia" — as if the causes Lee, Jackson and King fought for were equally laudable.

We're not worried that removing the two monuments will erase the complicated history of Baltimore's role in the Civil War. We're worried that it will erase the embarrassing fact that so many for so long have practiced denial about the entirety of what the Confederacy stood for. Mayor Rawlings-Blake should take down these two statues, but she should leave in their place some acknowledgment of their existence and the circumstances of their creation and removal. Then Baltimore should seek out new art that better reflects who we are today.

Copyright © 2017, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
72°